Computation and the Brain

[RG # 124] Computation and the Brain

March 1 - August 31, 2011


Eli Dresner (Tel Aviv University)
Oron Shagrir (The Hebrew University)

The concept of computation plays a major role in the current research of brain function. As Peter Stern and John Travis wrote in "Of Bytes and Brains" in Science (2006:75), "Computational neuroscience is now a mature field of research. In areas ranging from molecules to the highest brain functions, scientists use mathematical models and computer simulations to study and predict the behaviour of the nervous system". Another typical statement of the centrality of computation to the study of the brain can be found in Christof Koch's introduction to his book, The Biophysics of Computation: "The brain computes! This is accepted as a truism by the majority of neuroscientists engaged in discovering the principles employed in the design and operation of nervous systems".

However, the instrumental and explanatory role of the notion of computation in neuroscience is still in need of analysis and clarification. There are various different ways in which computational models and the notion of computation are applied in the study of the brain, and it is important for these to be distinguished and assessed. For example, as attested by the two quotations in the previous paragraph, the term "computational neuroscience" may refer to two different enterprises: Stern and Travis talk of the extensive use of computer models and simulations in the study of brain functions, while Koch gives expression to the view that the modelled system itself, i.e. the brain, computes. Both perspectives are part of what is one of the major scientific projects of our time -- the effort to explain how the brain, as a physical systme, works. However, together these two perspectives manifest a duality that is not found in other sciences, where e.g. stomachs, planetary systems, and tornadoes are studied through the use of computational models and simulations, but are not perceived as computing systems.

Thus what is called for is a systematic, philosophical analysis of the role of computation in neuroscience. What is the exact role of computer models and simulations in brain research? What is the explanatory role of the view that the brain itself performs computations? How are the two enterprises (of using computer models in brain research, and of viewing the brain as a computer) related: Do they employ the same concept of computation? Are they components of a wider exaplanatory framework? These are the questions that our research group set out to consider, discuss, and offer answers to.




Arnon Levy

The Van Leer Institute
Arnon is a professor at the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem. His research interests are philisophy of science and philosophy of biology.